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Our roads are neglected arteries

It was a familiar sight: a traffic log jam on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. The usual ingredients: roadworks; a bit of rain; idiotically ill-disciplined drivers; the absence of an authority able to impose discipline and clear the mess. The result: traffic brought to a total standstill on our main transportation artery.

In Britain some years ago, British Rail bureaucrats became famous for blaming winter rail delays on “the wrong kind of snow”. That classic remark has been lampooned mercilessly by comedians and has regaled the British for years. It has become a metaphor for bureaucratic bumbling. In Kenya last week, the Ministry of Roads blamed the Mombasa Road jam on “the wrong kind of murram”. The only difference is the Britain’s wrong type of snow floated down from the skies, while Kenya’s wrong type of murram was approved by the Ministry itself.

One thing is quite obvious: if we suffer from anything, it is the wrong kind of management. The fact that our national highway could be shut down at all should be a national outrage. It is not. It is merely another episode in the comic reality show of Kenyan life. It happens periodically. Every time, we fume and fret and then move on. Nothing changes, and we wait for the cycle to repeat itself, as we all know it will.

It is time this kind of service provision became unacceptable. A good national network of roads is an absolutely vital factor in national development. Numerous economic studies have found a strong link between poverty and remoteness. Roads are the economic lifeline of Africa. They allow agricultural produce to be brought to market, and finished goods to be transported to the buying public. They connect ports to hinterlands. They provide the only form of physical connection available to the average African.

A well-functioning national road network is absolutely crucial. Yet our performance thus far in building and maintaining this network is an absolute debacle. The toxic combination of corruption and incompetence has poisoned the roads sector for decades. A fact much quoted by businessmen is that it costs more to transport goods by road over the 500 km from Mombasa to Nairobi, than it does to bring the goods to Mombasa from thousands of kilometres away. Many companies estimate that poor infrastructure adds 15-20 per cent to their costs. One study, quoted in The Economist last year, estimated that each dollar put into road maintenance in Africa would lower vehicle maintenance costs by two to three dollars per year. We are killing our national competitiveness, even as we plead with investors to inject their money into our economy.

It is not just businessmen who suffer. The main burden of absent or inadequate roads is on the poor people of this country. They are the ones who stay cut off from the rest of the country. I am told, for example, that people travelling up to the remote northern parts of our country are often asked how things are in Kenya! The rural poor have to pay higher prices for basic commodities. They have to struggle to get their own produce to market, carrying heavy loads over long distances. In fact, the World Bank estimates that a typical Ugandan woman carries the equivalent of a 10-litre jug of water for 10 km every day (her husband, of course, carries only a fifth as much).

What is to be done? We need the right kind of management approach to this whole issue, one that takes a holistic view of the issue. It is not enough to merely find the funds to build roads. That is actually a lesser problem. Designing a national plan for roads that is aligned to projected economic activity? Again, we have all the economists and engineers we need to produce such a plan. The more intractable dilemmas lie in the issues of corruption and management.

Roads in many advanced countries are designed to have an economic life of up to 40 years. This means that if we had built roads like that at independence, you and I would still be using the very same roads today, with no rebuilding other than routine maintenance having been necessary in the intervening years! Seems utopian, doesn’t it? Yet that is what is possible, if we have the heart for it. In Kenya, of course, roads are designed to last until the next rains or the next election, whichever is sooner. Yet we have amongst the highest road-building costs per kilometre in the world. Where does all the money go? You know the answer, and so do I.

The government must have the will to attack this problem at its roots. A major clean-up is needed in all the bodies involved in tendering, procurement, approval, regulation and maintenance of roads. Restructuring and privatisation of the key agencies must be considered. Comprehensive controls and performance management systems must be introduced. And the ‘cowboy contractors’ who have fed the corruption must be dealt with, put away and never allowed to return. A huge task, and one that the government has so far shown little appetite for.

And then, if we have good roads, we will have to turn our attention to the people who use them. In one way, having poor roads is a blessing, given the mindset of the average Kenyan driver. Can you imagine what would happen if all our roads suddenly became smooth super-highways, with no corresponding change in driver behaviour? With no potholes to deter them, our matatus and buses would attempt to break Formula 1 speed records on our roads. The carnage would be unthinkable. Thus far, we have had the roads we deserve.

Poor driving is one of our ugliest features. To put it mildly, the average Kenyan driver is pathologically addicted to speed, and psychologically averse to road rules. Most drivers out there positively delight in getting ahead at all costs. Most of our gruesome multiple pile-ups are the result of sheer idiocy.

How did we get here? Let us acknowledge a guilty little secret: that few (if any) driving licences issued since the early 1980s have been issued without a bribe. I do not believe driver competence has been systematically tested in this country for over two decades. For this simple, easily avoidable act of corruption, we have paid dearly as a nation. The results are out there for all to see: a body of drivers with no clue about road courtesy, the highway code or good driving practice. Executioners armed with a little red document that licenses them to kill. Aided by traffic police for whom the daily bribes are not ‘kitu kidogo’ but part of essential income.

By sorting out our roads and drivers once and for all, we could give our economic recovery a welcome shot in the arm. But the problem has many faces. Solving it will require the government to do some ‘joined-up thinking’ and show the heart to sweep the roads clean of the corruption scourge. We must get people and goods flowing across the length and breadth of this country.

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